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Singer starts work amid new conflict of interest questions

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of December 6, 2012)
Photo: Singer reports to work.

Not only is the unusual and controversial hiring of Stuart L. Singer to be head of human resources for Indian River County Schools unethical because of the way it was done, but it appears to have created more than one conflict of interest. On Monday shortly before 8 a.m., Singer reported to work at the School District as personnel chief.

But he is not actually employed by the School District.  He works for the school board’s Orlando law firm, Brown, Garganese, Weiss and D’Agresta, which is renting him out to the school system. That’s because as a participant in a state retirement plan, Florida law prohibits his being hired directly for six months.

Several weeks ago, when the unusual hiring arrangement, which circumvents state law, came before the school board for a vote, school board member Matt McCain worried aloud that it could lead to a conflict of interest.

Couldn’t there be, asked McCain, a situation that put the school board attorney and personnel director on different sides of an issue? How much could Singer disagree with Suzanne D’Agresta if she was paying his salary?

At the time, D’Agresta assured McCain there was no need to worry about any conflict of interest because Singer wouldn’t be giving the School District legal advice. But the conflicts that are shaping up go beyond that.

As Singer’s hiring becomes increasingly controversial,  D’Agresta is advising the superintendent and school board on how to deal with it – which appears to be by itself a conflict of interest.

D’Agresta did not return three calls from Vero Beach 32963 to ask if she would recuse herself from giving advice to the School District about the Singer hire to avoid a conflict of interest situation.

But Superintendent Fran Adams did talk about it, saying neither she nor D’Agresta sees any conflict of interest involved with D’Agresta giving advice on the Singer hire.

“I’ll be working with Suzanne and her employee (Singer), who is our consultant, on these issues,” said Adams.

What about Singer’s role as overseer of the DROP (Deferred Retirement Option Plan ) and its rules for Indian River County – rules he managed to circumvent in his own situation. As head of human resources for Indian River County Schools, will he advise DROP participants to “do as I say, not as I do?” Or, will he tell them that, like him, they too can find ways to flout DROP law?

“Having Stuart over areas of personnel won’t change how an employee is counseled,” said Adams.

In the two weeks since the School Board approved hiring Singer, at least one other board member  – Jeff Pegler – has said he wants to revisit the hire after Vero Beach 32963 wrote about it and teachers protested it at the last  board meeting.

“The hire has become an unfortunate distraction taking us away from what we need to accomplish, and we need to rethink it,” said Pegler.

If school board members decide to rescind Singer’s contract or end it after 30 days, they are in a stronger position than they would have been if Singer had been a direct hire.

Had that been the case, they would have had to show “just cause” to end the contract, which would probably mean showing evidence that Singer had committed a crime. 

Because he was hired under an independent contract with the D’Agresta law firm, the contract can be terminated.

D’Agresta, said Adams, will advise the board and her on any issues that come up about it.

A conflict? “No, we don’t see any,” said Adams.

Singer was personnel chief in Osceola County for seven years before being transferred to head of information and technology – a lateral move which some school board members in Osceola County say occurred because of questions about his treatment of employees.

Singer said he had no issues with employees.

Now, he is back in the job as personnel chief – this time for the Indian River County school system. Whether he remains there for the next seven months, as an employee of D’Agresta’s, will be determined at the next school board meeting on Dec. 11.   

After that, whether he is in the job or not, Adams can hire him directly as personnel head in July, and the board will have no say.

Singer said he expects to stay in the job until then and might remain there.  “Don’t call this a temporary position,” he told Vero Beach 32963.